Background and History
It is entirely appropriate that this dog has a saintly name. After all, the Saint Bernard breed of dogs are famous for bringing succour and comfort to those who are lost alone. Both their thick coats and the iconic small barrel of brandy tied around their necks bringing much-needed warmth to the frozen traveller on the mountains of Italy and Switzerland.
This dog is generally accepted as based around the Mastiff breeds typified by the English Mastiff. Originally war dogs, the Saint Bernard turned its size and power rather to rescuing the helpless. This Mastiff heritage is reflected in the fact that these dogs were originally known as the Alpine Mastiff.
Bred to find and rescue people at the hospice of Saint Bernard of Menthon, the first dogs at the hospice are recorded from 1660 onwards on the Swiss-Italian border. These dogs showed not only an ability to seek out the desperately lost and revive them with a slobbery lick and their body heat, but also the co-ordinated independence where some dogs would return to the monastery to alert and then lead the monks towards a rescue.
Their value and fame is reflected in the fact that they feature in two paintings by the Italian artist Salvatore Rosa in 1690.
Unfortunately this was dangerous work amidst the freezing temperatures and avalanches of the Alps, and by the mid-nineteenth century this breed became endangered. Although it is a testament to the breed that it is estimated that they saved thousands of lives from the 17th to the 19th century.
The most famous and successful of all Saint Bernards was a dog called Barry who reportedly saved around
But ironically it was now the Saint Bernard that was in need of rescue to ensure that this wonderful dog did not become extinct. For this purpose the remaining dogs were crossed with the Newfoundland from Canada in the 1850s. Although this was well-intentioned the influence of the Newfoundland led to a longer coat not ideally suited to the Alpine environment as the fur would freeze and weight these dogs down.
The influence of the Newfoundland is still reflected today in the fact that the Saint Bernard can be either long coated or smooth-coated.
The Saint Bernard arrived in the United Kingdom in the early nineteenth century and soon gained popularity across the pond in the United States. In fact by the year 1900 they were recorded as the most popular breed by the AKC. In the modern day they still remain at the respectable position of the 53rd most popular breed in America according to 2021 registration data .
Character and Temperament
The Saint Bernard certainly shares many of the traits of a typical Mastiff type of dog. They are calm, tolerant and generally well-disposed towards people and other dogs.
This dog is therefore a very good family dog who is excellent around children. Although like all other dog breeds it is important to make sure they are supervised at all times. But the avoidance of accidental injury is also helped by the fact that these dogs are quite low-energy and are not boisterous.
In keeping with their Mastiff heritage these dogs will be very tactile and will always attempt to lean or lie against their beloved humans when they are at rest (a characteristic which made them so useful in lying against frozen travellers in the Alps). This dog will generally want to shadow their owner around the house at all times.
The Saint Bernard is a people-oriented dog and is naturally very friendly, even towards strangers. This does not make this breed a natural guard dog although they will be likely to rise to the occasion if they sense any threat.
Although this breed has a deep, resonant bark they do not tend to bark very often. Again this is not good for guarding purposes, but does lend itself to a more relaxed environment at home.
A novice dog owner needs to be aware that this dog will need strong canine leadership and may be prone to bouts of stubbornness. But they are eager to please so will generally be manageable both within and outside the home.
The Saint Bernard does have an adventurous spirit and loves to be outside exploring and rolling around in the mud. A home with a good, secure outdoor space is therefore optimal for prospective owners of this wonderful dog.
These dogs are generally well-disposed towards feline members of the family and do not have a high prey drive. But it is still important to ensure structured training and socialization to ensure that the fur does not fly..
For the different stages in a puppy and adult dog’s development please click here.
Newfoundland, English Mastiff
Linked Hybrid Breeds:
The Saint Bernard is an intelligent dog, as suggested by their role in search and rescue, but they are not known for their ability to learn a huge range of commands.
This dog has a willingness to please and is also generally food-oriented. This means a good level of training can be put in place around the important basics. This should certainly include heel work to prevent this huge, spirited hound pulling on the leash.
Saint Bernards do not do well if left alone for long periods of time. It is therefore very important that training to mitigate or prevent separation anxiety is put in place at the earliest opportunity.
But be aware that this excellent breed can also be sensitive to correction, so ensure that an approach based around positive reinforcement is in place. For more information on the benefits of this approach please click here.
The Saint Bernard is a low-energy breed who does not need a great deal of exercise. This dog will be happy with a couple of short walks each day of around 20 to 30 minutes.
But they will enjoy being off-leash for a romp around to provide mental as well as physical stimulation.
The Saint Bernard has a broad, powerful head in keeping with a Mastiff based breed. These dogs have wide, sagging jowls with a deep muzzle. The almond eyes have a gentle, inquisitive expression framed by high-set drop ears.
This dog has heavy, thick musculature with a straight top-line leading to a luxuriously furred tail usually carried low. The legs are also thick-set with broad feet.
This giant breed is very heavy typically weighing between 154-198 lbs (70-95kg). The minimum height for the male is 27.5 inches (70cm) with the female a couple of inches shorter at 25.5 inches (65cm).
Coat and Grooming
The Saint Bernard only has moderate grooming requirements. The coat should be brushed every week to remove dead hairs and circulate oils around the skin.
But this will need to be done more frequently in periods of hot weather. For other tips on how to keep your dog cool in hot weather please click here.
Also any prospective owner should be aware that these dogs will drool frequently. This may put off those who are particularly house-proud.
Lifespan and Health
The lifespan of this breed is usually between around 8-10 years.
As a giant breed of dog the Saint Bernard is particularly susceptible to hip and elbow dysplasia. There can be issues surrounding Coronary Heart Disease as well as other heart conditions.
It is important to remember that these dogs can get gastric torsion, so it is important to avoid dogs eating within an hour of any exercise.
Some can also suffer from epilepsy. Cancers, such as bone cancer, are also known to afflict this breed.